Everyone knows that the cowboys were the greatest heroes of the Wild West. The overwhelming evidence of the silver screen cannot be contradicted. Or can it?
The modern conception of cowboys is along the lines of a John Wayne character- tough, a little rough around the edges, and perhaps overly bellicose, but still the good guy. He can single-handedly overcome the most unfavorable odds by sheer grit. Even with serious character flaws, he is still inside of the law, or least everywhere that it matters.
Yet it is interesting to see what people thought of cowboys in the real Wild West. By and large, the opinion of the elite, like business owners, political leaders, and newspaper men, was that cowboys were undoubtedly questionable characters. John Clum, in referring to a cowboy ambush that left four Mexicans dead, said, “unless immediate steps are taken by the citizens to rid the county of these outlaws there will be no more protections of life and property.”
Why would he call cowboys outlaws when we have such a different perception of them? Sure, they were often rowdy when they came town, and could cause public disturbances, but that doesn’t exactly make a man an outlaw.
The difference in opinion is because the meaning of the word cowboy has changed. When the West was being won, what we call cowboys would have been called cowherds, cowpunchers, or cowhands. Buckaroo was also used, as it was an Anglicized version of the Spanish-Mexican vaquero, who were the original and renowned mounted cowhands of the West. They were the professional cattle herders.
Cowboy was a different story. Some believe may have originated as a derisive term for African American cowpunchers, though the word’s use dates all the way back to a Jonathon Swift novel of 1725, where it is synonymous with the use the work cowherd in the connotation of a young boy who tended cows on foot. In the late 1700s, it was a negative reference to a band of New York state loyalists. Its use gradually spread to include mounted adult cowherders by the 1850s.
In some areas, it carried particularly loaded connotations. The implication of the word was that the bearer of the name herded cows dubious title. If he didn’t actually steal them, he was at least cognizant of their illegitimate title. In Tombstone, the implication went further- it meant that you were among the worst of the outlaws. Remember all the things you read about Wyatt Earp as a kid? He was always involved in trying to whip the outlaws around Tombstone. Did you ever notice outlaw and cowboy were often used interchangeably in reference to the bad guys?
Regardless of whether or not the connotation was loaded in a particular vicinity, it was not the preferred reference to cattle herders as it seemed rather unprofessional. That would change in the golden age of the Hollywood west. Cowboy became a term of approbation that referred to the men in the white hats. Some, like Bass Reeves, were men of impeccable character, while others, like Big Foot Wallace and Liver-eating Johnson, had more checkered careers.
And so it is that cowboy came to mean what we think of today. Like many of our images of the Wild West, it came from the entertainment industry of western novels and movies.
Harper Douglas, “Etymology of cowboy,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed September 8, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/cowboy.
Jeff Guinn. The last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral- And How It Changed the American West. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.)
Macmillan Dictionary. “Cowboy.” Macmillan Dictionary Blog, accessed September 8, 2022, https://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/cowboy.